NOTE! This is the second in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. The previous installment discussed the episodic hero, while the third installment (planned for Tuesday) will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.
This past Tuesday, I wrote about how episodic heroes are constructed in contemporary science fiction and fantasy series. While an episodic series relies on that hero, it is each individual book’s plot that keeps the reader turning pages. A good episodic plot will avoid formulaic writing, while providing an escalation in tension so that the reader keeps turning pages. The key to this is to establish momentum, and as the series progresses to vary the structure of each book’s plot. This keeps the reader interested in the book they’re holding in their hands right now, while the hero’s emotional journey (discussed in the next installment) keeps them buying the next book.
Pacing: Hitting the Ground Running
By leaving the character’s backstory off-stage, episodic books typically open with the hero actively starting the adventure. This is a page taken right out of the detective novel playbook. When we first meet Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, we find her turning down work from a shadowy vampire organization. We first encounter Ray Lilly traveling to his latest case, or Harry Dresden getting a job. Episodic series sprinkle the hero’s backstory here and there, but no time is wasted by delving narrative-style into the hero’s psyche or providing an infodump on “what-came-before”. Episodic series hit the ground running, and they tend not to let up until the mystery is solved, the monster is slain, and the hero can put his feet up.
Middle-grade novels especially establish the stakes early on (often on the first page!). I strongly recommend reading middle-grade episodic novels (like The 39 Clues series) to find some tricks on how to establish stakes and simultaneously establish the hero’s characterization. From conversations I’ve had with children’s book editors, the speed with which readers are drawn into the story is one of the most important characteristics they look for. Adult episodic series, with their tendency towards functional prose and page-turner status, can learn much from the pacing techniques used by children’s authors.
The Shape and Structure of Episodic Plots
Most episodic series rely on mysteries for their plot structure. Many employ the classic mystery plot: clear identification of the mystery, broadening suspicion, a sub-plot intrinsic to the hero’s emotional arc, discovery that the hero has been on the wrong track, re-focusing of the hero on the right track, explanation, climax and denouement. This type of plot may seem a bit cliched, but the practical reality is that if it worked for Agatha Christie, it’ll work for people writing today. The originality and inventiveness of the individual authors shines through in how they flesh out these bones to create their books.
Urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files or the Twenty Palaces novels rely on a combination of characterization and world-building to enrich their basic plots. Paranormal romances like the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the later Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books combine mystery plotting with the techniques of romance. Episodic adventure series like Artemis Fowl or Vlad Taltos invert traditional tropes (criminal vs sleuth, commit a crime vs solve a crime).
The Sense of Escalation
As the series progresses, building a sense of escalation becomes critical. Think of it this way: if the hero saves the universe in book one, what’s he going to do in book two? Many episodic series avoid this pitfall by focusing the plot on rather narrow concerns: if an epic hero saves the world, an episodic hero is more likely to save an individual. By keeping the scope focused, it makes it easier to escalate the stakes as the series progresses.
With her experience writing children’s books, Kate Griffen does an excellent job escalating the stakes across her Matthew Swift novels. In the initial installment (A Madness of Angels) Matthew Swift is focused first and foremost on his own survival. He is looking out for Number 1, and if others get swept up in his fight for survival that is their problem. In the second book (The Midnight Mayor) Swift has the (magical) mayoralty of London dumped in his lap, and he must deal with the consequences. At stake is the entire city of London and England itself.
Connolly uses a similar tactic to equally good effect: in the first Twenty Palaces novel (Child of Fire), the primary stakes are the hero’s life. Sure, there’s a town involved but Ray Lilly is focused on his own survival. In the second book (Game of Cages), his focus shifts to that of the town where a ravenous predator has escaped. What makes Connolly’s execution so strong is the unity he achieves between the explicit escalation of the stakes in the plot, and the escalating tension/stakes on Ray Lilly’s emotional journey (more on this in the next installment).
This kind of thematic and tactical escalation across books in the series can also tie into the character’s experiential growth: if the inexperienced hero can do something, it stands to reason that as their capabilities and understanding grow, so too will the stakes they fight for. The Harry Potter novels, themselves straddling the fence between epic and episodic, manage this experiential escalation very well.
The Danger of Formula and Using a Change-Up to Avoid It
The danger in all of this is that a plot model that works for the first, second, and third book in the series may seem formulaic and dull by the fourth, and fifth book in the same series. This is a point where the best episodic writers introduce what I call a “change-up”, a device which imbalances the hero’s routine and changes the plot structure of the books.
Different authors employ different change-ups: Steven Brust took away Vlad Taltos’ fortune, profession, and family by the fifth book. Jim Butcher introduces varying changes into Harry Dresden’s personal life (roommates, family members, etc.) while weaving strands for a super-plot that ties into Harry’s backstory and extends across the series.
By introducing such new elements, or by subverting the formulas employed in the earlier books, the plots can remain fresh for long-time readers and the momentum can be maintained throughout the series. But to be effective, the change-up has to do more than just intensify the predominant theme. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are centered around romantic relationships. The characterization of Sookie represents the series’ greatest strength, with an iconic and engaging character and a distinct narrative voice. But as the series progresses, Harris attempts a change-up by complicating these romances through the introduction of new paramours and the removal of old flames. Because the books were already centered around relationships, the change-up rings flat and fails to build a sense of increasing stakes. As a consequence, the books rely upon the reader’s prior investment in the character and the world of the series. In Harris’ case, this gamble might work due to the audience’s strong emotional involvement with Sookie. But it is a big risk to take.
Plot versus Emotional Arc
This discussion of plot is centered around one book, within the context of a broader episodic series. The defining characteristic of episodic series is that each installment stands alone, and in order for that to work, each installment’s plot must stand alone. However, it must balance its independence with the foreshadowing and references necessary to link subsequent books and preceding installments. The key to this, I believe, is the hero’s emotional changes over the course of the series. This emotional development is not confined to any one book, and it represents the glue that binds the books to each other. The next installment (Tuesday) will focus on this.
NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on using the hero’s emotional arc to keep readers engaged across books in the series.